Ever since I went to the "Eat the Problem" feast at MONA last month, people have been asking me about the cat. The steaming hot bowl of feral cat consomme, to be more specific, in which a hunk of possum tortellini floated beneath a gaping, eyeless pigeon’s head. Everyone wants to know how it tasted, because no one’s ever thought to try it for themselves. Cats in Australia are always either pet or pest—few people have taken the initiative of shooting them, skinning them, and boiling them in a pot.
Westerners in general are weird about what they will and won’t eat. Cows—adorable cows, with their kind eyes and their bed-head fringe—can be butchered without anyone so much as blinking, while horses—ranked the deadliest animal in Australia—are sacred. Pigs are fair game, but to eat a dog is sin. And meanwhile we poison perfectly delicious “pest” species like brumbies, rabbits, and deer, and leave their carcasses for the flies. Maybe you can see where I’m going with this: the question is, why don’t we just feed on the pests, eat the problem, and kill two birds with one chopstick?
Artist and architect Kirsha Kaechele is the brains behind this idea, and it seems like a good one: a neat way of closing the loop and untangling some of those knotty ethical dilemmas around the way we treat animals. By inviting people into her carefully curated feast and feeding them abundant yet disgusting things like crickets, cane toads, and cats, she obviously wants to make us all feel something—repulsion, curiosity, whatever—but it is, by and large, a philosophical exercise. Kirsha wants her dinner guests to think that little bit harder about how they view certain species.
“I just thought it was really short-sighted to call these species ‘problems’,” she tells me. “From what perspective? According to whom? Everything is a matter of context. People are like ‘oh it’s so terrible that there’s all these deer destroying everything’ and everyone’s sad about that and poisoning them and leaving their carcasses to rot—which has its own environmental implications—and then they’re consuming meat from a factory farm where the animals suffered and it’s ugly and gross on every level. That just doesn’t make sense. So it’s like ‘What do you mean it’s a problem? That’s a resource.’”
So yeah, it seems like a good idea—but I wanted to know how well it translates into practice. Is expanding our dietary horizons simply a matter of overcoming cultural taboos, or is eating pests actually just as putrid as everyone thinks? More selfishly: is it possible to not only eat but enjoy eating invasive species in everyday life? Sitting at a table made from the boiled-down fat of camel humps—a table that is also the world’s largest glockenspiel, because MONA—and being served all manner of pestilent flora and fauna, I found myself in a reasonably good position to begin answering these questions. I am not a qualified food critic, but I do sometimes eat food, so here are my thoughts on some of the more outrageous ingredients included in this feast—which I have rated based on how likely I am to eat them again.
Long spine urchin and fried starfish with sea star garrum
This was my first meal of the evening, notwithstanding an ants-and-mezcal shot—and I’m of the opinion that mezcal always tastes like crushed ants anyway, so straight away it was hard to tell where the pest ended and the aperitif began. The main courses were monotone, and everyone was assigned a colour to dress head-to-toe in that would match their opening course. I was orange. The sea urchin—bayoneted on a steel toothpick atop a sheep whey vodka martini—was more a muddy-green, so that was a weird start. And honestly it just tasted like salt water; like sucking a rock pool through a straw.
The main dish was a serving of fried starfish with fermented seaweed and sea star garum. A lot of people probably think starfish are cute, with their bright pastel colours and their rubbery, limb-like appendages, but they’re actually fucked. The Northern Pacific seastar is one of the 100 worst invasive alien species in the world, and thousands of crown-of-thorns starfish are literally chewing their way through the Great Barrier Reef as we speak.
Flavorwise though? Not bad. It was hard to delineate one ingredient from another in this dish, but most of it either tasted like the sea—that briney, gritty sharpness you usually get from oysters—or sashimi. So:
7/10, would eat again
Pigeon with possum-and-hare tortellini in a feral cat consomme
The meal of the hour; the piece de resistance. Going into this feast, everyone was talking about the fact that we would be served feral cat in one form or another. That form turned out to be liquid. And if that’s whet your appetite, it’s worth flagging that this culinary experience will not be offered up to everyone—it’s illegal to serve cat in Tasmania, even as “art”, so it won’t be included on the public feasting menu.
The pigeon unsurprisingly just tasted like chicken, or spatchcock, and the possum-and-hare tortellini—while resembling a knotty piece of intestine, all pinched and white and fleshy—tasted more like veal ravioli. This was, I think, the most delicious single element of the evening. And then a man politely tapped me on the shoulder and held up a teapot full of feline soup.
Now I will say this: it is impossible to slurp up a liquid that you know is cat broth without tasting the cat. That kind of warm, cloying, spare-room-at-your-nan’s-house scent just seeps in and dominates the palate, if only subconsciously. But maybe there’s something to that: the idea that we’re all just superimposing our preconceptions onto these unappetising ingredients; getting hung up on how we think they should taste, rather than how they actually do.
Because once you get past all that, cat broth just tastes like lamb stock. Or chicken stock. Or vegetable stock. All of which just taste like two-minute noodles. It doesn’t feel entirely economical—I don’t how many cats were used, but there doesn’t seem to be much broth to go around—so it loses a few points for that. Otherwise though…
8/10, would eat again
Deer with brumby pemmican, feral salami, and blood sauce
We all know deer is delicious, so there’s no need to labor the point, but I want to talk about horses for a second. People have this thing about eating horse, like it’s some repulsive, morally unconscionable act that deserves contempt and disgust. And yeah, okay, they’re spectacular creatures with glistening pelts that have dutifully carried humans on their backs for thousands of years. But the thing is, you’ve eaten horse. There’s just no way you haven’t at least dozens of times.
Ever had a supermarket lasagna? Horse. A sausage roll from some backwater service station? Horse. Cabanossi, twiggy sticks, frankfurts? Horse, horse, horse. And that’s fine. Why wouldn’t we eat an animal that is A: huge and meaty, and B: so abundant that they’re destroying our national parks?
There’s a section in Kirsha’s book where environmental academics Don Driscoll and Sam Banks recount seeing a group of starving brumbies in the Snowy Mountains literally eating one of their own to stay alive. In that grim passage, the authors describe the scene of three animals standing alongside “a fourth horse lying dead on the ground. Two of the horses had their snouts inside its gaping abdominal cavity, nibbling at what little remained of its digestive tract.”
So you see? Even horses eat horse, (albeit under fairly dramatic circumstances). And you should too. In this particular case it had the rich, juicy flavour you might expect from the pemmican of any other red meat.
As for the other elements: calling salami “feral salami” feels tautological—like describing wine as “alcoholic wine”—so that was pretty run-of-the-mill. And the blood sauce? I didn’t know about the “blood” part until I read the menu afterwards, so I guess that was fine.
10/10, would eat again
Fresh sugar cane with scampi caviar and toad garum dressing
The cane toad, Australia’s most notorious pest, was another talking point before the feast. The origin story of these creatures sounds like a Biblical parable: a bunch of Queensland sugarcane farmers noticed that cane beetles were eating their crops, so they thought they’d wage some biological warfare and introduce a predator into the natural environment, the cane toad. Then cane beetles—because they’re beetles—started climbing to the top of the cane stalks, and the cane toads—because they’re toads—couldn’t get to them. Now there’s heaps of both. These hideous amphibians also happen to be an apex pest: they poison everything around them, breed like crazy, and are almost impossible to curb in terms of population.
Anyway, this dish was obviously a statement on that narrative, what with the piece of sugar cane and everything. I’m led to believe that cane toad is edible, if you eat around the toxic glands in their shoulders, eyes, and ovaries—but it seemed as though the creature had been reduced to some kind of paste here, so that wasn’t an issue. It was also served up in this weird, shoe-looking dish.
At the end of the day I actually thought everything in this meal tasted pretty good, if a bit sweet and disarmingly blue. Literally no one sitting around me agreed, but nonetheless:
7/10, would eat again
Fecal transplant with dung smoked silken tofu, shitake ferment, and pickled fungus
A fecal transplant is when you take the feces of one person and insert it into the digestive system of another person in order to give the recipient a healthy dose of gut bacteria. This wasn’t that, but it did look like it. The glass of brown liquid sitting in front of me exactly resembled a chilled highball of weapons-grade diarrhoea. And that was kind of the whole idea: apparently the ingredients of this dish were all supposed to have a certain diarrhetic effect, to stimulate digestion, and going in more than one person expressed concern that they might literally shit themselves right there at the table. I can’t confirm whether any of them did—I for one, did not.
The dung smoked tofu did taste rather dungy, and the pickled fungus and shitake ferment also had a bit of a pooey flavour to it. Overall, while there wasn’t anything too outrageous or grotesque in the way of ingredients for this course, it was putrid. But here’s the thing: this meal wasn’t really all that taboo at all. The food, actively made to resemble feces, was the closest to something you’d expect to find in a new age, vegan restaurant in Melbourne’s inner north.
Maybe that’s Kirsha’s point: that people already eat pretty disgusting things, and pay good money to do it. It all just comes down to what society tells us is fit for consumption. But if the “ick” factor is your excuse for not eating pests, then it needs to be reexamined: because horse, cat, and cane toad all taste way better than this hyper-organic shit.
2/10, would not eat again
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